Elizabeth Alexander on the Importance of Race to the Obama Presidency

Question: Does Obama’s presidency mark a post-racial age?

Alexander:    Well, if I ruled the world, the term post-racial would not exist.  I don’t see post-racial as a goal.  Let me clearly say what I mean here, I don’t think race is to be transcended.  Race itself is not a problem.  We all have race and history and region and gender and class, you know, we all have histories, we’re all from some place and I don’t think that the goal is to say that we’re now all in this fabulous neutral happy place but rather say, “Well, can we hear each other’s stories?”  Can we… can we, sort of, take the weave and the overlap of the experience and really understand it as one thing with a lot of strands that sometimes really have clashed and mumped up against each other.  Can we reconcile a violent history?  Can we reconcile the inequities of the present?  Post-raciality doesn’t accomplish anything per se and I think that what it would also mean is rushing past that which has not been altogether resolved.  Now, on the other hand, are we in a place where, you know, if there is such a thing as the National Conversation on Race is… has maybe moved forward?  Yes.  I think we are in that place and I think that part of it is, you know, that the country has elected, done something that it has never done before, it’s elected an African-American president, it’s elected an African-American president who, in his own background, reflects the incredible and fascinating diversity of African-Americanness, of Blackness, if you will.  Yes, Blackness can be brought up in Indonesia, you know, I mean, I think that that’s actually a very, very interesting that he still places himself under the sign of Blackness but there are different pieces to it because there are different pieces to being Black.  So, you know, that’s very important that we have done something different from what we’ve done before and also very importantly, that White people have all of the millions of White people, you know, you can’t even speak of that as a collective, it seems absurd so it’s absurd to talk about Black people as a collective.  But what people did was, they made, to my mind the excellent choice, right?  That they did not let racial thinking interfere with making what they felt was the choice that was best for the country.  Now, that’s liberation actually, that’s very, very powerful.  To say that I’m not going to let this old thinking in fact lead me to make a poor choice, that I think is a very, very important thing.  And so now, in ways both that Obama himself has lead us to, his extraordinary speech in Philadelphia, the so-called race speech which, you know, I think will be taught for hundred of years to come as a very important American speech.  In a way that really recognizes a lot of paradigms in a racial conversation but also says, “Let’s have a different conversation.”  So he’s helped us move forward in that regard and also there’s some stuff that happens just because he and his wife and his children and his mother-in-law are in the societal spaces that they’re in now for all to see.  It is incalculable and when I say incalculable I say that, you know, I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows the kind of cultural work that that’s doing.  You know, Black women, for so many hundred of years defamed and kept outside the category of lady and now the First Lady of the United States is an African-American?  That these people are living in a house in part built by enslaved Black people?  Maintained by Black people?  And they are living in that house?  I mean, the symbolics are very, very, very, very powerful.  And I’m fascinated to see how it’s going to unfold. 

Elizabeth Alexander on the power of racial identity.

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Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

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Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.